Advent 2 - God's New Road
They are famous words from the prophet Isaiah:
“The voice crying out in the wilderness
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill be made low
And the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places made smooth.”
I often hear music when I read them:
Godspell or Handel’s Messiah
Sometimes I even think of lectors with British accents reading this passage
At the Lessons and Carols on Christmas eve at Kings College in Cambridge.
But lately I have been hearing something else when I read this passage:
The sounds of traffic.
Perhaps it is because I have spent a fair amount of time driving I84
But I can’t help but think what good news this passage would be
If we could apply it to our highway system.
Think of how great it would be to have that windy section in Hartford made straight,
Or the place where it narrows to two lanes in Waterbury widened.
Imagine the rough patches of endless construction smoothed over,
And smooth sailing on Rt. 4 through Farmington!
God would come in and change the whole landscape, and that would be salvation!
We have our complaints about roads in our own day,
but consider for a minute the journey that Isaiah’s people took.
Isaiah prophesied in the 6th century BC, when Southern Kingdom was surrounded by enemy armies
And Northern Kingdom had already been conquered.
In 587, King Nebuccadnezzar of Babylon stormed Jerusalem.
He burned houses, leveled the temple,
and forced the people of the city to live as refugees in Babylon.
They had to walk 500 miles over rutted trails.
They had only the clothes on their backs.
Many people died on the way, especially children and old people.
For the people of Israel, it was a trail of tears.
It seemed that God had forgotten them.
They stayed in the refugee camps for 50 years—for two generations.
But then God changed the landscape.
Babylon was conquered by the new world power Persia.
The Persian king Cyrus proclaimed that the exiles could return to Jerusalem.
That is where we get these words from Isaiah:
The homeless Israelites were going to turn around and make the trip home.
Only this time it was going to be easy!
No hard roads, no detours, no people dying on the way.
God remembered them, and would change their long trail of tears into a superhighway to life.
In our gospel lesson Mark quoted this passage from Isaiah
because he saw that God was changing the landscape again.
This time the Messiah was coming, and in him God wasn’t just turning the people around,
God was building a whole new road!
In Jesus, God was lifting the low spots—
the lowly and forgotten people, and giving them dignity.
God was leveling the mountains, and taking down the proud and power hungry.
God was making a fully accessible path in the desert,
so that in Jesus everyone could walk the road together.
God sent John the Baptist to herald this change.
He preached that repentance was the first phase of God’s construction.
You see, people’s lives were like a winding road—
they had lost their way because of greed and jealousy and self righteousness.
They fell in potholes of poverty, illness, and hopelessness.
They needed to walk a new road that led not to sin and death, but to life.
They needed to go in the opposite direction entirely.
They needed to repent, which literally means to turn around 180 degrees and go the other way.
This is what we need too.
Repentance is the spiritual practice of looking at Jesus’ road,
And seeing how our road compares.
Turns out our lives are just as windy as the people coming out to see John the Baptist.
We get stuck spiritual ruts—ways of coping or relating to other people that just don’t work.
Our busyness edges out time spent with friends, neighbors, even our families.
We allow ourselves to become distracted by technology and entertainment
And then we do not see the pain of others who live in our town and state.
We despair at intractable problems like income inequality, racism and sexism,
And though we care, we think, what can one person do?
We need to get out of this rut. We need to head in a new direction.
And fortunately for us this is exactly what God wants to do with us.
God is changing the landscape of our lives.
In fact, in Jesus, God is changing the whole road
so that we don’t trample others or walk away from the suffering
So that people can do for themselves instead of being dependent
So that we can use our collective power as people of God to make systemic changes
and a positive difference in people’s lives.
One of the ways I have been seeing this kind of system change is at Fresh Start Pallet Products.
Fresh Start is a ministry/non-profit business started at Grace Lutheran in Hartford.
Their motto is, Building Furniture, Rebuilding Lives.
They start with wood from pallets left over from truck deliveries
And turn it into benches, tables, and chairs.
Our new advent stand in fact is one of their pieces.
The real aim of the industry is to provide training and employment for people in recovery:
one craftsman is recovering from homelessness, another from addiction,
and a third is a Syrian refugee.
Fresh Start works at dismantling the systems that keep from satisfying employment.
The ministry requires a lot of partners:
there’s Lee, the retired cabinet maker who trains the workers;
There’s Ron, who speaks at fundraising events,
and Louisa, who paints the furniture;
There is a steering committee of 16 who registered the business with the state,
secured charitable funds,
And just two weeks ago, succeeded in getting a new location for Fresh Start rent free
complete with a show room, loading dock, and plenty of space for a workshop.
Some folks at St Matthew are thinking that our church could be another partner.
This summer, four St Matthew’s members toured the current workshop of Fresh Start.
Amid the cramped quarters of the basement workshop, we saw lives changing.
We heard about the challenges of transporting the furniture and their steps to grow the business.
One followed up with a meeting this fall with Pastor Rick of Grace to learn more
About what we could do to support this life changing ministry.
It is a great example of how through people working together, God changes the landscape,
raising up the road so that everyone can walk it.
But if in Jesus God is building a whole new road, then we need to consider something else:
Pastor Rick said the biggest obstacle to expanding the business and employing more people
Is the health of the potential craftsmen.
The folks they are working with have been medically underserved,
and their health issues, diabetes, hypertension, asthma, prevent them from working.
These are by and large preventable diseases,
and certainly ones that can be managed with proper care.
I heard an echo of this at a meeting of Focus on Canton this week.
The group meets to discuss various social services and charities that operate in town.
Among the reports of volunteers doing household and yard tasks for the elderly,
Delivering thanksgiving meals and holiday parties for folks at assisted living,
We heard the same story of declining health insurance coverage
And the impact it makes on those with a limited income.
If we are talking about system change, it seems the health care system is part of the road
that needs rebuilding.
So we got our work cut out for us.
Because if the solutions for healthcare were easy, someone would have figured it out.
On the other hand, it is easy to get back into the rut,
and let the politicians and corporations decide what happens to people’s health coverage.
Isaiah, John the Baptist, and Jesus himself issue the clarion call for a different kind of path,
One in which the most vulnerable are included.
As people of faith we too can speak this message.
We can pray about it and study it together.
We may not always agree on specific policies, but
We can find ways to take steps together to walk the new road God is building among us.
Prepare the way of the Lord!
Make his paths straight!
You may still hear music when you hear these words of Isaiah,
But today I also hope you’ll remember this:
God’s changing the landscape.
God is building a new road.
Take time to examine your life and compare it to the road that Jesus walked.
Let God build up in us the new highway that leads to life, so that all people can get out of the rut
And walk free.